"I’m running for president because, now more than ever, we need leadership that brings us together — not divides us up," said Bernie Sanders, the independent U.S. senator from Vermont, when he announced his candidacy for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination in February 2019.
Not unexpectedly, the announcement opened a floodgate of partisan shade-throwing on social media. One Facebook meme that appeared to take aim at Sanders' call for "leadership that brings us together — not divides us up" attributed a statement to him describing Christianity as "an insult to Muslims":
Tracking its history on Twitter, we found variants of the statement attributed to Sanders dating to June 2017:
Bernie Sanders Publicly Attacks Nominee Over Religious Beliefs https://t.co/qSrByjeLCu "Christianity is an insult to billions of Muslims."
— Jordan Kron (@gold_kron) June 9, 2017
https://t.co/zXj1PbvvyA "Bernie Sanders: Christians not fit for office. Indefensible, Hateful, Islamophobic, an insult to Muslims around t…
— ??ChristianPatriot (@SavetheUSNation) June 10, 2017
Being a Christian is a insult to Muslims @BernieSanders what is wrong with you, you are Persecuting Christians now #GodHaveMercyOnYou
— Miss Lin (@Misslinlou) June 11, 2017
None of those variants is an exact match for anything Sanders has said on the public record. We turned up no instances of Sanders' saying or writing that "Christianity," "Christians," or "being a Christian" is "an insult to Muslims."
He did use the phrase "an insult to Muslims" to characterize a statement written by an appointee to the Donald Trump administration, however.
The dates of the earliest tweets above roughly coincide with the 7 June 2017 Senate confirmation hearing of Russell Vought, President Trump's nominee for Deputy Director of the Office and Management and Budget (OMB). Sen. Sanders was present at that hearing and delivered an opening statement in which he attacked the nominee for writing a statement that Sanders maintained was "Islamophobic" (emphasis added):
On January 17, 2016, Mr. Vought wrote an opinion piece for a publication called The Resurgent in which he said, and I quote: "Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ, His Son, and they stand condemned."
When Mr. Vought was asked in writing if he considered this statement to be Islamophobic, hateful, and offensive, he responded, and I quote -- this is Mr. Vought: `"No. I respect the right of every individual to express their religious beliefs. This statement, which is taken out of context, was made in a post designed to defend Wheaton College, my alma mater, for its decision to insist that one of its professors maintain its statement of faith. I specifically wrote it with the intention of conveying my viewpoint in a respectful manner that avoided inflammatory rhetoric." End of quote from Mr. Vought.
The professor who Mr. Vought is referring to is Larycia Alaine Hawkins, who became the first female African American tenured professor at Wheaton College in 2013, serving as an associate professor of political science. Apparently, the crime that Mr. Vought found so objectionable was a 2015 Facebook post that Ms. Hawkins wrote, stating, and I quote -- this is from Ms. Hawkins, the professor of political science: "I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the Book. And as Pope Francis stated, we worship the same God."
Mr. Chairman, in my view, the statement made by Mr. Vought is indefensible, it is hateful, it is Islamophobic, and it is an insult to over a billion Muslims throughout the world.
It's clear from this excerpt (taken from the official transcript of the hearing) that Sanders was criticizing Vought's claim that Muslims "do not know God" and "stand condemned," and was not criticizing Christians or Christianity. After an exchange later in the hearing during which Vought defended his remarks as "a statement of faith that includes the centrality of Jesus Christ for salvation," Sanders closed by saying the nominee was "really not someone who this country is supposed to be about. I will vote no." (Sanders did vote no, but Vought was eventually confirmed by a 50-49 vote nonetheless.)
Although it's apparent in context that Vought was stating what he takes to be a core tenet of the Christian faith, it doesn't follow (as some might argue) that in attacking that statement Sanders thereby attacked all Christians, or Christianity itself. Why? Because such an argument assumes, falsely, that all Christians agree with Vought's theological point.
There is no clearer indication that such disagreement exists than the Wheaton College incident that prompted Vought's statement in the first place. In 2016, the evangelical college initiated termination proceedings against tenured professor Larycia Hawkins after she defended wearing a Muslim headscarf with the following statement (quoted in the hearing by Sanders): "I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the Book. And as Pope Francis stated, we worship the same God."
Wheaton's position, as defended by Vought, was that Hawkins' statement deviated from the college's Statement of Faith and its theological underpinnings. However, as a 2018 Ligonier Ministries survey found, theological disagreements exist even among evangelicals, 51 percent of whom agreed with the "unorthodox" proposition that "God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam."
While we take no position on this theological debate, nor on the validity of Sanders' criticism of Vought's statement, we do find, based on the considerations above, that the claim that Sanders said "Christianity is an insult to Muslims" is false.